From a position where England could afford to sit back and relax on a chaise longue, they’ve jumped right into a maelstrom, twisting, turning and needing to pirouette their way out of what they’ve contrived. Sri Lanka were 7/2. Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes had once again made a brilliant start and all you could see at Headingley was English smiles. Then cricket happened. Or, as they say, England happened. Chasing a scanty 233 on a sluggish and slowish pitch, all that the hosts had to do was to show some application, common sense, a little bit of urgency and composure. Basically, they only had to do what the no.1 ranked team in the world would do. They didn’t. In fact, they couldn’t.
England resorted to perhaps being too passive. They went into a shell and then Sri Lanka never allowed them to get out of it until the end when Ben Stokes thought that he had had enough of blocking and lolling. We can talk about James Vince wasting another chance at the top of the order or Moeen Ali’s shot selection, but every single player in the England dressing room would agree that on Friday, it was the pressure of the World Cup that got to them. And pressure makes you do weird things unless you have the mettle.
Which brings us to the question: do England have the required mettle? They have the box-office players, but do they have the bottle? For four years, they have dominated one-day cricket, statistically and in terms of results. They have been the best. But becoming the best in the world is one thing, being able to act like the best is another and tougher because of the mental pressure that comes with it. England, it is fair to say, have underwhelmed when it comes to the latter on the biggest stage. The problem with so many talented teams is, as soon as they rise to the top, they start doing things differently in an attempt to maintain their position. They don’t want to lose. In doing so, they deviate so far away from their strengths that they forget what brought them to the pinnacle in the first place.
There was something about England’s batting in the defeat to Sri Lanka that tells you that they deviated, too. The pressure of proving that they can adapt to a tricky surface possessed them to the extent that they let go of their freedom and fearlessness – the two traits that have brought them to this position – and batted with caution and fear – the two traits that defined them when they exited the 2015 World Cup.
Quite frankly, there is no need to do that. This is still the same team that has forced every other team to change its approach. This is still the same team that has made 350 look like the new 270. This is still the same team that has been at the forefront of one-day cricket’s latest revolution. This is still the same team that has set the benchmark. So this can’t be the team with the panic. This has to be the team with the planning because that’s what great teams do – and England are a great team. They just need to go back to their own basics. The same belief, resolve, aggression and expression that others have creaked at the sight of for quite some time now.
Everything that England have done from chasing mammoth totals to overpowering their opponents since “that” defeat to Bangladesh has led us to believe that they are the best and therefore worthy of the ultimate prize. Now is the time to prove it. That is the only way they can turn the clamour of those revelling in their latest setback into a hush.